I don’t happen to be in a cemetery very often — I don’t know why it clicked in my brain that this feels like the start of one of those Most Interesting Man in the World Dos Equis beer commercials — but when I have occasion to, I find them fascinating, particularly the older ones.
Just abstractly for a moment, it’s quite interesting that we bury our dead in designated places with humble ceremony (and well, as you will see, sometimes more ostentatious ceremony). Sometimes, I will be going about my day and think, I wonder if we’re running out of land to bury our dead while maintaining enough land for the living. But of course, the Earth is ginormous. (I don’t think anyone means it as a serious suggestion, but as a demonstration of Earth’s vastness, and to push back against overpopulation myths, but you could fit the world’s population into Texas, and everyone would be pretty comfy! With that path, we could basically turn Wyoming into one giant cemetery.)
Purportedly, we’re not alone in the animal kingdom in our death rituals, as chimpanzees, elephants, and even dogs have been known to do some form of a death ritual.
Despite being dead, with the essence (soul, if you want to call it that) of the human gone, there is still something deeply affecting about wanting to ensure the protection of, and engender proper respect toward, the dead. I like this invented exchange to prove the point provided by The Atlantic in a story on the matter.
The ancient Greek philosopher, Diogenes, reportedly told his friends he wanted his body thrown over the city wall to be devoured by animals upon his death.
“What harm then can the mangling of wild beasts do me if I am without consciousness?” he said.
To which, Thomas Laqueur in his book, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, responds for humanity, “Yes, but …”
If there was ever a title for a book about humanity, it would Yes, But …
My earlier rumination on the amount of dead bodies is also because, what are cemeteries going to look like in two thousand more years, if we are still around as a species then? It is not as if the bodies of those buried four thousand years ago are still marked and around (I don’t think, at least). Or even five hundred years ago in many cases. Even the ones I recently walked through, many of the graves prior to, say, 1950, are unmarked, decaying beasts in the ground.
Will my headstone still be visible, and standing at attention, two hundred years from now? I will be, as Diogenes noted, without consciousness to know about that status of my headstone one way or another, but still. When thinking in the abstract, it’s weird to think about!
Of course, the trend line in post-death planning is trending toward cremation, but even those can end up taking up space, as it were, with the niche columbariums, something more and more cemeteries seem to be adding to accommodate the trend.
Recently, I visited three cemeteries as part of a project I was doing for the newspaper. I think what most fascinated me was two things:
1.) The ostentatiousness of some of the headstones, particularly when they are inscribed with dates from the 1800s; you know those people either had money, or were famous, or both. Like in the case of former Ohio Congressman Thomas Hamer, who is most notable for being the Congressman who appointed Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States, and the general who beat the Confederacy in the Civil War, to West Point, and due to a clerical error, effectively re-named Hiram to Ulysses.
2.) Even the graves of those who were born in the 1800s — it is deeply interesting to me to think about a person who was born into that century growing old in the 1900s, but I digress — had fresh flowers on them! I wonder if that’s a family ancestor who still visits the grave, or if it’s just a considerate person, who likes to remember the dead long since forgotten.
And that’s really the rub of why it’s so interesting to visit these cemeteries. I like to walk around in between the well-kept headstones, the ostentatious ones, and the unmarked, decaying, fallen-over ones, and just think, Who were these people? What were their lives like? Who loved them? Did anyone care when they ended up here?
Things like that. That’s not a fear of death, or not mattering in the grand scheme of life nihilistic sort of thing. Just a curiosity thing.
And no, I’m not scared of cemeteries. I’m not really a ghost person. I like being scared, and I like going to places that are reportedly haunted to be enveloped by the vibe of the place, but it doesn’t give me the heebie-jeebies to walk through a cemetery. Plus, it was daylight, but even at night …
To be honest, that also seems like a cheapening of the “hallowed ground” to go there for adventure rather than somber reflection. I know that’s a serious way of looking at it, but I really do feel that sort of reverence when walking through the cemeteries.
Anyone else fascinated by cemeteries?